A BBC caption for a story about the Danish hostages just released by Somali pirates reads that “instability in Somalia has allowed piracy to flourish.” This statement took me back a few hundred years, to a time when Danish pirates roamed the sea at will, robbing innocent people of their riches, and their lives too.
Unsuccessfully attempting a satisfactory response, I reread an email recently received from an eminent writer, a close friend of mine, who had just read “Crossbones,” my new novel. He mentioned one Lars Gathenhielm, a Swedish pirate, most cruel, but nonetheless highly resourceful. Gathenhielm, the childhood hero of many a Swede about whom fantastic stories were told, was awarded a knighthood for his services to his nation and a street in Gothenburg was named for him. I doubt very much if any of the pirates who held the Danish family will have streets named for them or if they will be rewarded with knighthood. After all, the times have changed and the world is no longer what it used to be.
Please note that I am not for one moment condoning the hostage-taking criminality in which the Somali pirates have engaged. But unlike many peoples of the sea–including the Greeks, the Danes, the Swedes and the English–who saw the lucrative potential of piracy and pursued it as a vocation, Somalia did not engaged in thievery at sea until recently, despite the country’s more than 3,000 kilometers of coastline, the longest in Africa.
At the same time, untruths about piracy in Somalia are perpetuated, in print and on TV and radio. When I visited the country, I discovered that Somali pirates do not live the high life, nor do they receive the sums being mentioned, because much of the money stays either in Abu Dhabi or London, where it is banked. True, the state in Somalia barely functions, but that is not the root cause of Somali piracy. It started as a response to illicit plunder of the country’s sea resources by ships owned in Europe and Asia, but flying foreign flags of all sorts. The ships would arrive in Somali waters armed for battle, with speed boats, and they would employ fishing methods banned elsewhere, at times dumping nuclear, chemical and other wastes, and at times shooting at the Somalis fishing in the same area.
No doubt there is a great deal of criminality in Somalia, never mind her dysfunctionality and statelessness. But the country remains victim to worse press than she deserves. A Somali I met in Puntland recently told me that the image that comes to him when he thinks of Somalia is that of “a corpse at which vultures are picking. Why doesn’t the world let us be – to bury our country in peace?” When he observed that I did not follow his meaning, he said, “Tell them that the origin of piracy in Somalia is but a knee-jerk response to the world’s criminal behavior: what with many European countries dumping their chemical and other wastes on our shores; the American drones bombing with immunity, whenever they please; the Arabs messing about with our lives, and what with the Ethiopians and the Eritreans fighting their proxy wars on our land! Just tell them to leave us be!”
By: Nuruddin Farah